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RURAL EAST COUNTY RESIDENTS OUTRAGED OVER POWER OUTAGES DURING RED FLAG ALERT WITH WILDFIRE CLOSE BY




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“SDG&E exemplifies the hypocritical worst of the One Percent: higher profits, higher rates and disregard for lives.” – Kim Hamilton, Deerhorn Valley Antler editor

By Miriam Raftery

 

November 3, 2011 (San Diego’s East County) – Rural East County residents are voicing concerns over a power-shut down yesterday while a 600-acre wildfire in Mexico threatened to jump the border. The night before, some residents received a warning from SDG&E that the utility intended to shut off power due to a red flag alert signaling severe fire danger.

 

“Our neighbors to the east, toward/in Japatul, had their power turned off for five hours during the worst of the red flag alert,” Hamilton said in an “Antler Alert” sent to readers in Deerhorn Valley, just over the border from the Mexico fire. She encouraged concerned residents to “weigh in on SDG&E shutting down our power during the most dangerous fire conditions. Imagine not being able to get that Reverse 9-11 alerrt...”
 

ECM called SDG&E yesterday to ask for confirmation on whether it shut off power and in what communities. The utility’s media relations department would not respond, instead referring us to an outage page for updates on current outages.
 

Its outage page read, “We have an obligation to protect public safety as well as the integrity of our electric systems. If wind speeds exceed electric system limitations or we are unable to operate the system safely, we will turn off the power. If this is necessary, the power will be off for as long as these conditions last and will not be turned back on until it is safe.”

 

Today, SDG&E spokesman Todd Voorhees offered the following comments, but stilll has not clarified what caused outages in the Japatul area and some other nearby communities.

 

"In anticipation of the alert, SDG&E called about 11,500 customers in Ramona, Mountain Empire, Santa Ysabel, Potrero, Campo, Descanso, Cameron, Wynola, Lake Wohlford and Buckman Springs in advance to alert them that a Red Flag Warning had been called," Voorhees said. "These residents were told that they should be prepared for the possibility of wind-caused outages as SDG&E may have to turn off the power for safety. In preparation, the company staged SDG&E crews, trouble-shooters and contract firefighting crews in the areas where the winds were expected to be the strongest. Also, proactively locating crews in those areas shortens response time if there is an outage."

 

He added, "Also, SDG&E did de-energize TL23040 at 1916 hours (7:16 PM) at the request of CFE due to unscheduled work they needed to do perform on equipment at the Tijuana end of the line." This had no impact on customers, he said.

 

"SDG&E is playing games with our lives,” Hamilton wrote in a post on an ECM article about the fire, faulting the utility for its willingness to “cut off thousands of residents during the worst fire danger conditions, leaving us without reliability phone service…reverse 9-11 alerts and other life-saving information.” Her community, Deerhorn Valley, has no cell phone reception or cable Internet service, leaving people totally dependent on electricity for phones as well as Internet connections.

 

As ECM reported yesterday, Cal-Fire confirmed that the Mexico fire was within a mile of the border yesterday morning and afternoon, and was considered a threat to the U.S. The fire scorched more than 600 acres, causing breathing difficulties for individuals across the southern portion of San Diego County and extreme jitters among people in southeast regions close to the border fire and left without power.

 

Hamilton suggested that the utility should be “charged with a crime and held liable” if it left communities vulnerable and without communications. “SDG&E exemplifies the hypocritical worst of the One-Percent,” she concluded, “higher profits, higher rates and disregard for lives.”

 

Whether or not the utility actually followed through on its threat to shut off power during a red flag alert, residents are seeing red.

 

Chuck Hansen, in another post on ECM’s site, noted that the fire situation is no worse than it has been since the Laguna fire 40 years ago.

 

“The reason SDG&E is shutting off power is a liability and insurance issue,” he theorized. “They told me two years ago that the existing wooden power poles were not safe in high wind conditions.” He added that despite promises to upgrade to metal poles within a year, “here it is two years later, SDG&E is running all over the back country putting in the Sunrise Powerlink while ignoring these “unsafe” wooden poles. Their solution is to shut off our power when the wind blows.”

 

Hansen expressed outrage at a five-hour power outage and suggested the move was “a drill” intended to “see what the public response is going to be.”

 

He has good reason to feel burned. “A Powerlink contractor has already set fire to my property this fire season,” Hansen wrote. “My brush clearing efforts aided the hard working fire crews in stopping the spread. Should the same thing happen again during a power shut down my property would be without water,” he pointed out.

 

Hansen listed the problems and costs caused by the five-hour power shut-down, including “three hours time to get my generator set up, my water pressure restored, to reschedule my doctor’s appointment, two gallons of gasoline, my time to reset computers, clocks and home electronics, the effort to pen animals normally controlled with electric containment system, and my time to clean out the grit from my plumbing system that only occurs when the pressure tanks go flat.”

 

He intends to send SDG&E a demand for reimbursement, he revealed. SDG&E may be at fault whether the outage was intentional or, perhaps, due to poorly maintained lines or poles that went down in yesterday's high winds.

 

If the utility refuses to pay his demand, he says, “The gauntlet will drop. A public utility has no business interrupting power because their infrastructure is decrepit and substandard. We have no other source of electricity, so it is incumbent upon them to get their existing equipment upgraded to state of the art before they install new equipment—the Sunrise Powerlink.”

 

Michael Shames, head of the Utility Consumers Action Network (UCAN), called yesterday's possible shut-off "a sampling of what fate SDG&E may be dealing to backcountry residents in coming years if their proposed shut-off power plan is tolerated by regulators."

 

Currently the California Public Utilities Commission's Consumer Protection and Safety Division is litigating the matter with SDG&E by challenging the utility's claim that current rules give it the right to proactively turn off power whenever there is a high risk of fire due to hot, windy conditions and low humidity.

 

"The CPUC is saying that SDG&E can't do it, but SDG&E is just taking its chances," Shames stated.

 

What would it take for the CPUC to take action immediately to halt SDG&E from further power shut-offs during fire-prone conditions?

 

If a resident filed a complaint seeking an injunction, the CPUC would have power to take action, provided a legal reason were provided to show that SDG&E's action violates current rules, according to Shames.

 

Plans for a shut-off yesterday were announced due to the red flag alert for proactive reasons--not due to a fire actually threatening to burn lines, it appears. But even if an injunction were granted barring proactive shut-offs during conditions ripe for fire, the utility would retain the right to shut-down power when it's lines are threatened by an actual fire. The utility could be held responsible for any damage caused by those lines if it did not shut off power, Shames said.

 

"SDG&E could be held liable, but the threat must be imminent," he concluded. "The worse a fire is, the more the likelihood that SDG&E will shut off the power."

 

East County residents: Please share your views on this in our comments section below and/or e-mail editor@eastcountymagazine.org, especially if you lost power or received a shut-off warning from SDG&E. Please include details such as what community you live in, what times of day your power was out, and how this impacted you. If anyone who lost power is on SDG&E's list of people with oxygen or other medical needs, please advise whether SDG&E lived up to its promises to assure such individuals receive special assistance in a planned power outage.